A group of sociologists at Columbia University are attempting to answer this very question. The Sociology department, with the help of funding from the Institute for Social and Economic Research and Policy, has created the Columbia University Music Lab, an online experiment set up to gather information on how people form their musical tastes.
Matthew Salganik, a graduate student and one of the researchers conducting the study, says, “We became really interested in why some bands become popular while similar bands don't.”
One of the main inspirations for this study was current pop sensation Nora Jones. “She is a good singer, but there are plenty of other people who are just as good,” Salganik explains. He and his colleagues, Columbia University Professor Duncan Watts and Dr. Peter Dodds of the ISERP, designed this study to determine how and why people choose certain music.
The online survey begins with a brief questionnaire, the investigators say, “in order to help us understand how demographic factors like age, ethnicity, and musical taste can be used to understand the behavior of people in the project.” Subjects are then presented with a list of 48 songs, and when they click to listen, they are asked to rate each one. Once subjects listen to a song, they have the chance to legally download it.
Since the experiment is still in progress, Salganik was unable to give details about how the bands were chosen, but they are all virtual unknowns, most likely so that subjects will rate songs based on merit rather than the band's name. Salganik stressed the fact that the music lab is not affiliated with any record company, and that the study is purely for the benefit of social science.
The findings of the survey so far are also being kept secret so as not to affect the results, but Salganik said that the researchers want to get at least 1,000 more volunteers to take the survey, and that it will be six months to one year before the results are published. Click here to take part in the study.
Beyond this particular experiment, Salganik's research focuses on social contagion, the process by which ideas, fads, and behaviors spread, and musical tastes are an important indicator of this social phenomenon. He says the Internet has become crucial to his research, as well as the social trends he studies. “By doing a study on the Internet we are able to do something completely different, not like in a lab. It is the place where new music is happening, and it is also changing the face of music.”